Tyler Hildebrand headed out on his first recruiting trip as an assistant coach for the Nebraska volleyball team a few weeks ago.
It was to Atlanta for one of the largest club tournaments of the year, with matches being played on more than 100 courts. There were thousands of players there, and hundreds of college coaches watching them.
It was that weekend when Hildebrand got a better idea of what it’s like when you’re working for one of the top women’s programs in the country. In the presence of college coaches, parents and club coaches sometimes look at the name of the school on your shirt first, and look you in the eye second.
“It was just kind of interesting to see the draw of wearing that N on your shirt, and how the parents all just sit up, and you can see them getting nervous. That was kind of cool,” Hildebrand said. “It’s just cool to be part of that type of program.”
Hildebrand has been with the Huskers for about two months. Nebraska coach John Cook hired him from Long Beach State, where he was the associate head coach for the men’s team.
He instantly added to the Huskers’ beach volleyball program due to his experience with that sport. Now that the Huskers are in their indoor spring season, Hildebrand is helping train the setters. He was a three-time first-team All-American at that position at Long Beach State.
Hildebrand has exceeded Cook's expectations, and he already thought a lot of him to begin with. Cook was nervous when it felt like there was a chance Hildebrand might turn down the Huskers’ job offer.
Hildebrand was torn because coming to Nebraska meant he would be leaving Long Beach State during the middle of the season. Long Beach State could have a chance to win a national title next month. He also had an offer to be an assistant with the U.S. men’s national team for this Olympic cycle, and he would have been able to do both jobs.
But Hildebrand and his wife, Kristin, decided this was the time to make a move. Kristin, who was an All-American outside hitter at Stanford and played on the U.S national team with NU assistant coach Kayla Banwarth, will have a volunteer player development role on the Huskers’ staff.
“I think he’s a really talented coach,” said Cook of Hildebrand. “He’s got a great husband-wife team. Kristin brings a huge piece to this, and I learned that with (previous NU assistants Chris and Jen Tamas). They’re great role models for our players.
“I know he’s a super-loyal guy. He’s given up more than any other coach I’ve hired. He gave up a shot to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal, and he almost had to give up a shot to win a national championship.”
Hildebrand has been able to continue to coach part-time with Long Beach State. Recently he flew to California when the Huskers had a day off. He was there for only one match before returning to Lincoln. Hildebrand has coached eight of the players there since they were teenagers on his club team.
Hildebrand felt a sense of urgency from Cook during the hiring process, but also a willingness to help.
“John said, ‘Hey, if you do this we really want you and really need you and I know what you’re giving up, so if you do this I’ll do right by you, and I’ll do right by Long Beach,’” Hildebrand said. “He’s been a man of his word, and it’s been really cool to work for a guy like that.”
Cook’s brother originally told him about Hildebrand after he saw him coach in the club circuit in California. Cook contacted Hildebrand a few years ago when the Huskers had an opening, but the timing wasn’t right.
This time it was better. Kristin had just retired from playing. They met at an adult volleyball tournament while they were each in college, and had a long-distance relationship for most of the 11 years they’ve been together.
Hildebrand had always thought about getting into the women’s game. This is not his introduction to Nebraska, though. That came when Nebraska beat Stanford in the national championship match in 2006.
During his interview, Hildebrand was asked by Cook what he knew about Nebraska, because Hildebrand was a men’s coach.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, I know what Nebraska volleyball is,’” Hildebrand said. “I was dating Kristin when she was a senior when you guys beat us in 2006 in Omaha. So I was in Omaha with 17,000 fans, pissed off that there were 17,000 fans. I’ve known all of that.”
Hildebrand, 33, grew up in Mesa, Arizona, and played varsity basketball in high school. His dreams were more of playing in the NBA than Olympic volleyball. There is high school boys volleyball in Arizona, and he got recruited out of the hallway to play before his junior year.
It’s funny to look back now. During college Hildebrand was on the cover of “Volleyball” magazine with the headline, “Hands of Gold,” because he was a great setter.
But he started as a middle blocker in high school, and only began setting when some of his high school teammates played in a summer league and they needed a setter.
“I remember thinking back then, ‘Why am I doing this? I want to hit,’” he said.
Hildebrand went on to play for the national team for five years. He was an alternate for the Olympic team in 2008, but had to retire before the next Olympics after having nine knee surgeries over several years.
At Nebraska, Hildebrand has enjoyed getting involved with recruiting. Banwarth handles a lot of the recruiting, but Hildebrand asked to go to the tournament in Atlanta, where the NU staff needed to evaluate eighth graders. Several of the Huskers’ top prospects were there.
“I wanted to go because I hate that we have like 45 names in there on Kayla’s (recruiting) board and I don’t know anything about them. So it’s cool that now I know a lot about them,” he said.
Not every assistant coach would want to work at Nebraska. The schedule can be demanding. There are times of the year when days off are rare when the staff is both coaching beach and recruiting for the indoor team. But Cook is on the road just like the assistants, and Hildebrand embraces the grind.
“I love it, because if our leader and our head coach is that way, like, sweet, now I just get to be a part of it,” Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand has an annual salary of $100,000 according to a copy of his contract obtained through an open-records request, making him the highest-paid assistant coach the volleyball program has had. Cook asked for a three-year commitment from Hildebrand, which is the same as he does every assistant.
Cook got a new contract last year that pays him $600,000 per year. Hildebrand’s salary doesn’t feel like another milestone to Cook for a program that now turns a profit, though. He says it’s what Hildebrand deserved, and was needed after Long Beach State and Team USA reportedly made attempts to try and retain him.
Cook said the figure was easy for him to explain to Pat Logsdon, who oversees the volleyball program, and athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
“I think Shawn and Pat both knew this was a really important hire for our program, and for me,” Cook said. “When (other teams are) throwing all this money at him, you better step up.”